How to make the perfect bowl of porridge

bowl of porrisge
A recent report recorded an increase of 7.4 per cent in porridge sales in 2018, attributing its popularity to our increasing concern for choosing healthier options at breakfast 

Flooded with a moat of cold cream and rivers of golden syrup? Hidden beneath a blanket of chia seeds, activated nuts, agave and nut butter? Or enjoyed in its original form, with nothing more than a generous pinch of salt, and perhaps a dribble of milk? However you prefer yours, one thing is certain; the humble bowl of Scottish porridge remains a firm favourite throughout the country – and with the weather turning and the days growing shorter, it feels like a fitting way to start the day.

A report by Kantar Worldpanel recorded an increase of 7.4 per cent in porridge sales in 2018, attributing its popularity to our increasing concern for choosing healthier options at breakfast (an estimated 28 per cent of all breakfast-related decisions currently are based on health).

For such a simple dish, though, there's plenty of discussion as to how to make the perfect bowl, and none take this more seriously than at the esteemed 'Golden Spurtle Competition' in Scotland. Since 1994, the Golden Spurtle (a spurtle being the wooden stick-like implement used for stirring the porridge), an event that sees competitors travel from around the world to make the best bowl of porridge, has taken place in the Scottish village of Harrbridge. This year it takes place on October 12. 

Credit:  Heathcliff O'Malley

There are two categories; the ‘speciality’ category, allowing all manner of flavours and add-ons to the classic porridge oats, and the ‘traditional’, in which it’s down to the competitors to get the perfect ratios of Scottish oatmeal, water and salt. Soaking the oats prior to making is allowed, but nothing more. 

Fancying myself a dab hand in the kitchen, I decide to take part in a warm-up round to this illustrious event run by Rude Health and, in preparation, ask the experts what exactly makes the perfect bowl of porridge. Temperature? Stirring technique? I need all the help I can get if I'm to take home my own porridge prize.

“Go low and slow, and don’t let it boil too much,” Advises chef Henrietta Inman, who has recently finished her residency at Yardarm in Leyton, and will be heading the kitchen at Alex Hely-Hutchinson’s new outpost of popular grain-centric cafe, 26 Grains, in Borough Market.

Inman prefers a multigrain mix of porridge oats, wheat, barley and spelt, with a one:one ratio of oat milk to water. “I like to know where our ingredients are coming from, and so companies like Hodmedods are fantastic for plenty of different grains. Oat milk we think is a good all-rounder, suitable for those avoiding dairy and providing a nice creaminess.” 

Hely-Hutchinson, founder of the Scandi-inspired restaurant and, to my good fortune, a previous competitor in the Golden Spurtle competition, is more of a traditionalist. “I love an oat. It has this property called beta glucan, which is unique to an oat, and it’s where the creaminess comes from. I love the traditional category of the competition, with nothing more than oatmeal, water and salt, topped with a good helping of cream and brown sugar.”

But with such simple ingredients, is it really possible for porridges to taste that different? For this question, I have to ask a Golden Spurtle veteran, and few are more practiced that Nick Barnard, co-founder of Rude Health and certified porridge fanatic. "It’s quite amazing how different the traditional porridges taste; year after year one is astonished at the variety – often too thick, thin, bland, salty, burnt, raw."

Barnard has been competing in both categories of the Golden Spurtle since 2011, reaching the finals of the traditional round seven times and taking home the Speciality trophy in 2013. "I go back each year to succeed in my quest for the Golden Spurtle, and each year I work hard to make a bowl of traditional oatmeal porridge that is truly moreish, so that you want to finish the bowl, which is not easy given the simple ingredients."

The six bowls of competing porridges Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

Worryingly, it is Barnard who will be judging in my own porridge competition, alongside chef Asma Khan and Chefs in Schools founder Nicole Pisani. Armed with the wisdom of the porridge gurus, a jar of rosemary-toasted walnuts and a vague idea of a recipe in my head, I arrive to the Good Housekeeping Cookery School where the Rude Health Porridge Championships are taking place.

The rules of our competition are simple; we are given 20 minutes to create two bowls of identical porridge, flavouring and topping with anything we desire. Elements may be made ahead of schedule and brought with us (hence my nuts), but the bulk of the bowl must remain oaty. I glance round my competitors’ workbenches – kale, miso paste, unpronounceable beans and amaranth surround my own table of brown sugar, full-fat milk and pears. The start bell rings. 

Within minutes, the room is obscured by clouds of steam as the cooks sweat onions, toast nuts and get their oats on to boil. I begin peeling and coring my pears, which will go into the saucepan along with butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and five spice in quantities that will be decided as and when I throw them in. The air is heady with garlic, fried eggs and caramel. 

With five minutes to go, and after a minor panic involving an induction cooker and non-conductive saucepan, I dole out my porridge, thick with full-fat milk, and top with syrupy pears, a dollop of lactic yogurt and my rosemary-roasted walnuts. 

(From left) Nicole Pisani, Nick Barnard and Asma Khan judging the porridge bowls Credit: Healthcliffe O'Malley

After 10 minutes of watching closely as the judges dip back and forth between each porridge, while helping myself to spoonfuls of my rivals’ bowls (disappointingly, they are all delicious), the votes are in and the winner is declared; oat risotto with parsnips three ways. Surprisingly, my five-spice pear porridge bags second place, which I am rather chuffed with. 

It may sound like fun and games (I’m not sure about your idea of fun, but making porridge under time pressure is most certainly mine), but there is some serious work going on behind the Golden Spurtle. The competition works in collaboration with Mary’s Meals, an Argyll-based charity that aims to provide one good meal a day to school children in developing countries worldwide. Currently, they provide meals for over 1,425,000 children, in 18 different countries – all receiving a bowl of energy-packed, vitamin enriched maize porridge. Together they established World Porridge Day, falling on October 10 each year, to raise awareness of the fantastic work carried out by Mary's Meals.

Hunger is one of the biggest reasons preventing children from going to school and receiving an education. By providing one filling, nutritious meal at school, Mary’s Meals offers a simple solution that has led to an increase in enrolment, attendance and academic performance. What’s more, it costs a mere £13.90 to feed a child for an entire year through Mary’s Meals.

It is a simple concept to match one of the world’s simplest pleasures; a hot, steaming bowl of oats, milk and water, enjoyed with a sprinkling of brown sugar and a puddle of cold cream – or, if you fancy recreating the runner up in the Rude Health Porridge Championships, take a look at my recipe for five spice and cinnamon pear porridge, below. 

The cobnut powder and walnuts can be made well in advance and kept in a sealed jar, leaving only the porridge and pears to make. 

Find out how to get involved in World Porridge Day, and donate to Mary’s Meals at marysmeals.org.uk